“Never before, in years of reviewing books about buildings, has one brought me to tears,” “This one did.” Peter Apps, the deputy editor of Inside Housing magazine, has written a “clear, moving and powerful” account of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Britain’s worst fire since the Second World War. Apps was already investigating the “dangerously combustible insulation and cladding used on British apartment blocks” before 14 June 2017. On waking that morning to see images of Grenfell burning, he immediately said to himself: “It’s happened.” In his book, he splices in a minute-by-minute account of the night in question with an examination of how the disaster was made possible by “the 30-year pursuit of deregulation in the building industry”.
His verdict is damning: it was the “cynicism, greed and contempt” of politicians, civil servants and building industry bosses that led to the needless loss of 72 lives. Apps begins his book with an account of another, eerily similar fire that killed six people at Lakanal House in south London in 2009, That too was triggered by a domestic appliance catching fire; and as with Grenfell, the flames were spread by the building’s highly flammable aluminium composite material (ACM). But the obvious lessons simply weren’t heeded. “When warned in 2016 that another fire was likely without a longdelayed regulation review, the civil servant responsible for guidance on fire safety allegedly quipped: ‘Where’s the evidence? Show me the bodies.’” Apps paints a meticulous picture of a government infatuated with “cutting red tape” – and a building industry obsessed with maximising profits.
His book is “a harrowing account of the fire itself and a searing indictment of the society that allowed it to happen”. Also at fault was the fire service, Instead of telling residents to evacuate the building, the London Fire Brigade adhered to its long-held “stay put” policy – one based on the erroneous belief (dating from pre- ACM days) that fires would not spread in high-rise buildings. Even more appalling is the fact that the residents themselves had consistently warned that their building had become a “death trap”, But, of course, they were ignored. As this “essential work of journalistic scrutiny” so clearly shows, the Grenfell disaster was caused by “a collision of forces with one common root: the broad contempt showed by people with power towards those without it”.